Pronouncing “GIF”: A Psycholinguistic Approach

Animated GIFs have been kind to me. The small amount of Internet fame I’ve managed to garner is due mostly to a very niche GIF-related project I finished last summer. So lately I pay a little more attention to the format, and yes, the Great Pronunciation War often weighs heavily on my mind. Today I’m thinking there’s a good reason many of us prefer the hard g (myself included), and I think it can be explained in a somewhat rigorous manner.

Close your eyes.
Find your inner peace.

And suppose, for a moment, that you had never seen the letters “GIF.”

If you’ve never seen it before, you’re going to have to use knowledge of other similar words in your vocabulary to work out how it’s pronounced. What follows is a slightly culled list of English words that start with “gi-”. (This wordlist was originally for use with word games, so there was some pretty strange stuff in there. I’ve tossed 11 of the weirdest ones.)

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Though not an overwhelming bias, “gi-” words using the hard g pronunciation comprise a majority. This is even after making the very diplomatic decision to count words with the “giga-” prefix as utilizing both g sounds. (But, NB: Ask how many “jiggabytes” of RAM a laptop has and you will definitely have an extremely amused 19-year-old Best Buy sales associate on your hands.)

However if you subscribe to the idea that the frequency of word use in a language affects how easily they are called to mind for consideration (Hint: you probably should), then you’ll realize that not all words are created equal and a ‘flat’ map of words like I’ve provided above may not give us the whole picture. To illuminate which entries in the table may most easily spring to mind, here’s a plot of the top 10 most common “gi-” words as found in the British National Corpus.

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I’ve underlined “giant” in red here because it is the only word in the top 10 to use the soft g sound. It’s also only a fraction as common as the top three words. So if you’re digging around your mental lexicon looking for a word that starts with “gi-”, ones that begin with a soft g seem to be at a disadvantage.

I’d also like to point out that the word that is the clear leader on this frequency plot, “give”, is one very small shift in pronunciation from being exactly the hard g version of “GIF.” All the mouth movements in the two words are identical; the only difference is that in “give” the final consonant is voiced, while in hard-g-GIF it’s not. Don’t believe me? Try whispering both words out loud in quick succession. “Give” shows up consistently as one of the most commonly used English words. I’ve seen it ranked as high as 98.

So why all the debate if a hard g is a natural first guess for English speakers? My own theory is that the majority of soft-g-GIF people either heard their version out loud before seeing the acronym, or read about “the correct” pronunciation when they were introduced to the format. But the thing about language is that it’s deeply democratic, and the existence of a prescribed “correct” way to say something often amounts to very little.

I guess we’ll all just have to keep voting with our g’s until it’s settled.

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Minor league space scientist and last of the Apple ][ programmers. Destined to do something cool but heck if we know what yet.

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